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Enemy At The Gates, Pt. 4: Oklahoma’s Running Backs

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Rodney Anderson is gone, but Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks are here to run rampant.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Orange Bowl-Alabama vs Oklahoma John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The last two years for the Oklahoma Sooners have been defined by Heisman Trophy-winning seasons for their quarterbacks. Baker Mayfield lit everyone’s hair on fire in 2017, and then Kyler Murray turned in one of the most ruthlessly efficient seasons in college football history in 2018.

But the running backs have been the quiet workhorses for Oklahoma in recent years. Fans of Big 12 schools aren’t shocked to learn this, but in 2017, the Sooners were 27th nationally in rushing yards per game with 217.8. In 2018, that number jumped to 247.9 yards per game, good for 11th in the nation, and again, this was with a Heisman-winning quarterback.

Mayfield and Murray are gone now, replaced by, well, Jalen Hurts, a superstar in his own right who is a better runner than either of his predecessors. Hurts can sling the ball, of course, but the addition of Hurts to the Oklahoma offense will only bolster an already potent running attack for the Sooners.

But this article is about the running backs, so let’s get to them. Trey Sermon and Kennedy Brooks are the two main names you need to know. Sermon, a junior this year, ran for 947 yards and a team-high 13 touchdowns on 164 carries (an average of 5.8 yards per carry) in 2018. He’s listed at 6-0 and 224 pounds, and is tough to bring down with his physicality. He’s also a decent option in the passing game, hauling in 12 catches for 181 yards. In 2018 he was an All-Big 12 Honorable Mention.

Brooks is the more electric of the two runners. Listed at 5-11 and 205 pounds, the redshirt sophomore out of Mansfield possess all the elusiveness you could want. In his debut campaign he averaged 8.9 yards per carry (!) on 119 carries for 1,056 yards and 12 touchdowns. He only played in 12 games, but still led the Sooners in rushing yards, and he was a USA Today Freshman All-American.

One enterprising YouTuber — shoutout to Charlie Parker, whomever you are — put together a supercut of Brooks and Sermon against TCU last season. Pay attention to the bullish way Sermon runs, like on his touchdown run starting at 0:55 in the video, and contrast that with lightning-quick cuts from Brooks like on his touchdown starting at at 1:33:

Brooks had 168 yards and a score on 18 carries; Sermon had 110 yards and two TDs on 17 carries.

Let’s pause for a moment to recoup from any PTSD brought on from watching that.

Rodney Anderson is no longer with Oklahoma after an injury-plagued career, and was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals. His absence will only open up more carries for Brooks and Sermon to do their thing.

Once you get past Brooks and Sermon on the depth chart, however, the roster at running back is thin. Oklahoma only lists three other backs, and they are all either a sophomore or redshirt freshmen. T.J. Pledger (5-9, 200) is the bowling-ball sophomore. He ran for 179 yards on 30 carries in 2019, and his role should increase if Brooks and Sermon need breathers, especially near the goal line. Michael Anderson (5-8, 170) and Isaiah Harris (5-9, 199) are the redshirt freshmen, and for the life of me I can’t figure out anything about them.

Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley is going to be salivating over the run packages he can draw up with Hurts, Brooks and Sermon in the backfield. The Sooners’ run game was potent enough in 2018; with another year of experience on the two running backs and a powerful runner like Hurts at QB, the options are almost limitless.

The only thing that could stop OU’s run game is its offensive line. Sophomore center Creed Humphrey is the only returning starter up front for the Sooners, and as Spenser Davis of the Dallas Morning News wrote, Oklahoma is replacing four NFL draftees. The new line for OU should be made up of blue-chippers — big surprise, there — but they’re unproven.

Oklahoma isn’t slowing down this year despite losing a Heisman winner yet again. Only this time, the Sooners have enough talent in the backfield to take the spread running game to whole new level.